August 7, 1930.
The night James Cameron’s life changed forever. A day before, he and two other young Black men were arrested for the robbery, rape and assault of a White couple in Marion, Indiana. James is in a cell in the Grant County Jail. There is a lynch mob outside numbering into the thousands. James is sixteen years old.
The mob comes into the jail and grabs one of men accused, with James, of the crime. He is beaten unconscious, dragged outside and lynched. The second man is then given the same treatment. The bodies of these two men, Tom Shipp, 18, and Abraham Smith, 19, hanging from a tree is depicted in a famous and disturbing photograph.The mob now comes for James. He is beaten and dragged out to the tree where his friends now hang and the rope is placed around his neck. It is at this moment that James remembers hearing what he describes as an angelic voice above the crowd say “Take this boy back, he had nothing to do with any killing or rape.” Suddenly the hands that were beating him are now helping him. The rope is taken from around his neck and the crowd clears a path for him to walk back to the jail. In interviews he later conducted with people who were in the crowd, no one remembers hearing any voice. Their reason for why the crowd did not lynch James: “You were lucky that night.” Though James never admitted any guilt in the assault (he admits that he was there), he served 4 years in prison. The female victim later changed her story and confirmed that James had no part in the assault.
After he was paroled, James Cameron moved to Milwaukee. During his career, he held several jobs including table waiter, laborer, construction worker, laundry worker, salesman, janitor, ditch digger, record shop owner, theater custodian, junkman, newspaper reporter, shoeshine boy and cardboard-box factory worker. He also organized the Madison County Branch of the NAACP in Madison and other chapters in Muncie and South Bend, Indiana. Upon retirement, he opened a rug and upholstery cleaning business.
In 1983, after not being able to find a publisher for the book he started writing in prison, Cameron took out a second mortgage on his home to publish A Time of Terror, his autobiographical account of what happened that night in 1930.
The following year, after hearing of plans to build a Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., James Cameron decided that a Black Holocaust Museum was needed. “It seems that every group of people have a chance to erect museums and memorials and statues in our country so the that the world can never forget.”
In 1988, he founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Inc., a non-profit museum devoted to preserving the history of lynching in the United States and the struggle of Black people for equality.
Cameron returned to Marion in 1993 to receive an official pardon from Indiana Governor Evan Bayh for the part he played in the 1930 assault incident for which he was originally arrested. He was also given the Key to that city.
Age has not slowed James Cameron at all. In 1995, even though past the age of 80, he again returned to Marion to lead a protest against a Ku Klux Klan rally. This was in direct defiance to what city officials were urging residents to do. To quote Cameron, “The Klan should be stamped out, and the people should be the ones to stamp it out.”
In addition to his book, Cameron has been the subject of articles written in many countries around the world.
James Cameron has been married to his wife Virginia for over 50 years. Together, they have 5 children, 8 grand children and 4 great grandchildren.
For more information on using the resources at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Inc., contact:
America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Inc.
To make a tax-deductible donation by CHECK, please mail it to:
c/o Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation
11933 W. Burleigh Street, Suite 100
Wauwatosa WI 53222